While a disease outbreak struck Tennessee's deer herd last year, the deer this year should be healthy. Here are some top places in the state to find venison. (OCtober 2008)
Volunteer whitetail hunters deal with many factors for success throughout the season. Some are controllable, but most aren't. Last year's epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD) outbreak dealt a huge blow to overall success for not only Tennessee.
We'll look at these effects, including weather, mast crops and pressure, along with others as we plan our 2008 whitetail comeback this fall. The bottom line is that if you want to take deer, you have to be out there regardless of the factors facing your success.
For many hunters, last year's deer season was not what was hoped for. If we expect to bounce back this year, we'll need to do our homework early. To help, here's a region-by-region forecast of the best places to get your deer, based on the latest data from the TWRA.
2007 IN A NUTSHELL
The record harvest in 2006 was the target on many deer hunters' minds when the 2007 season opened, but with an occurrence of epizootic hemorrhagic disease (EHD), visions of setting a new all-time harvest record quickly faded. The 2006 harvest of 182,093 seems a distant number compared with the final harvest take of 164,413 in 2007.
At some point, Tennessee hunters will set a new record for deer harvests, but it's going to take a season or two to rebound from the effects on the deer herd of the EHD outbreak last year. If you run the statistics, you'll see that last season's harvest was really only down by 9 percent when all things are considered.
Daryl Ratajczak, Tennessee's big-game coordinator, said that isn't a horrendous drop in the overall whitetail harvest, but it was far from what was expected from a very healthy deer herd going into last fall. As the deer hunts opened in September, Tennessee's whitetail herd was estimated at nearly 1 million deer, and we were primed for a record harvest.
After biologists and managers have had nearly a year to look at the overall effects of the disease that struck much of the country, it appears the rough estimate is that 60,000 deer were lost to the disease statewide. The biggest effects were naturally where the deer population was the densest -- in Middle and West Tennessee. Of Tennessee's 95 counties, 83 of them were hit hard by EHD. Of the 60,000 deer that perished, Ratajczak believes that had an effect somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 in the decline of the overall harvest.
As mentioned in the July issue's story on our top draw hunts statewide, the EHD outbreak, along with the media scare, appeared to keep many hunters out of the woods. One factor that Ratajczak relies on in his analysis is the decrease in the fall turkey hunt harvests that had been going gangbusters. EHD didn't affect turkeys, but the lower harvest suggests to managers that there were not as many bowhunters in the woods (bowhunters during parts of the year when both deer and turkeys are legal normally account for much of the fall turkey harvest). Either the bowhunters just decided not to shoot turkeys, or they simply were not in the woods as much as in the past.
"We definitely knocked the population back in the counties most affected by EHD," Ratajczak said.
Unit L counties, which have the densest deer populations, were hit hardest. Ratajczak said some of the hardest hit places in Middle Tennessee were Hardin, Lewis, Maury and Williamson counties. In comparison, Unit L counties may have seen a 2,000-deer loss, while counties in Unit B may have only seen a 200-deer loss.
The effects of EHD were widespread, not only in deer that were lost to the disease, but by the anxiety it put in deer hunters' minds as well. Like Ratajczak said, nobody wants to eat a sick animal. Although Middle and West Tennessee were hardest hit, the data collection on the outbreak showed the closer the county was to the Mississippi River, the least it was affected.
In the summer of 2007, Ratajczak said the summer deer surveys were tough because you would run into a wall of stench from dead deer. Fortunately, this past summer has been a relief, and the surveys turned up more deer than expected. Ratajczak also said this year's hunting guide will feature an educational section on EHD and a map with counties in red that were significantly affected last year and why.
Also, last fall's weather, which often has a major effect on the deer harvest, was better than normal. Heck, it was good -- there just wasn't as much hunter participation as in the past. The effects of the disease itself, as well as the scare, can be readily seen in the harvest figures.
Of our 95 counties statewide, only 19 of them had a harvest increase in 2007 over the 2006 season. In addition, the totals for every weapon category were decreased: On the gun hunts, muzzleloader dates, archery and crossbows seasons, hunters took fewer deer across the board. The wildlife management area (WMA) hunts, which help add to the overall harvest, were also down significantly due to lack of hunter participation and EHD. In 2006, we took more than 7,000 deer on WMA hunts, but that number fell to just less than 6,000 last season. Every WMA weapon category harvest was decreased as well.
Opening weekend success was also down across the board in each region of the state. The opening weekend harvest in 2006 was 24,372 whitetails, whereas the 2007 opening weekend total was 17,564 deer. The biggest decreases were seen in Region I and Region II, where EHD had the biggest effect on a denser deer population. The Region I opening weekend harvest was down by slightly over 2,000 deer, while the Region II harvest decreased by well over 3,000 whitetails.
THE TOP COUNTIES
For years, Hardeman County and Henry County hunters have battled it out for the top spot among the state's best deer producers. Hardeman County has held that distinction for back-to-back seasons. Last season, Hardeman County still held onto the title of whitetail king, according to harvest figures, but Henry County made a definite drop, falling all the way to the fourth position among top counties for the first time ever. Ratajczak said Henry County's fall can be readily equated to the EHD outbreak. He said Henry County was hit harder than Hardeman County, and the harvest figures show it.
Hardeman County hunters had the best success in 2007 with a harvest of 5,817 deer. Giles County finally moved from its seemingly perpetual third spot to a second-place finish among the top 10. Giles County hunters harvested 5,076 deer. Fayett
e County also made a move forward to the third overall spot with a take of 5,064 whitetails.
Henry County was in unfamiliar territory with its harvest of 4,943 deer, down from the 2006 total of 5,399. The top five was rounded out with Lincoln County's 4,260 deer tagged. The sixth spot went to Franklin County, where hunters bagged 3,667 whitetails. Montgomery County was in familiar territory with a take of 3,635 deer.
The only other change in the top 10 statewide was that Madison County dropped off the list, and McNairy County's 3,580 deer put it on the top 10 list -- in fact, in eighth place. The ninth position fell to Weakley County with a harvest of 3,560 animals. The last spot in the top 10 went to Carroll County with a harvest of 3,527 whitetails.
Looking closer at the region-by-region top harvests, Hardeman was, of course, No. 1 in Region I with its harvest of 5,817. Fayette County was second in that region with 5,064 deer. Henry County was third in Region I with a take of 4,942 deer. The fourth spot there went to McNairy's harvest of 3,580. The fifth spot in Region I was held by Weakley's harvest of 3,560 whitetails.
In Region II, Giles was the top deer producer, followed by Lincoln's 4,260 whitetails and Franklin County's take of 3,667 deer. The fourth spot in Region II was garnered by Montgomery County's 3,635 deer harvested. The last and fifth position in Region II went to Wayne County's harvest of 3,472 whitetails.
|TENNESSEE'S BEST DEER-PRODUCING|
COUNTIES STATEWIDE TOP 10
|TOP EAST TENNESSEE COUNTIES|
The numbers drop significantly in Region III, but are just as important to the hunters there. The top spot in Region III was held again this year by Roane County's 2,550 deer taken. The second position was held once again by Jackson County with a harvest of 1,913 whitetails. The Region III third spot was overtaken by Cumberland's harvest of 1,839 deer. The fourth spot in the region was filled by McMinn County's production of 1,822 deer. Rhea County fell from its familiar third position in Region III to fifth with a harvest of 1,722 deer.
Hawkins County continues to be the best in Region IV with a harvest of 2,468, but was overtaken by Roane County in 2007 as the top eastern county overall. The second spot in Region IV was again held by Claiborne County with its harvest of 1,335 deer. Sullivan County was again third in Region IV with a take of 1,304 whitetails. The fourth position was grabbed by Greene County hunters with their harvest of 1,228 deer. The last and fifth position in the region, respectively, went to Johnson County with a harvest of 1,143 whitetails.
|TOP 10 MANAGED|
|2. Fort Campbell||502|
|6. OAK RIDGE||375|
|7. CHUCK SWAN||369|
|8. TENESSEE NWR||319|
|9. CROSS CREEKS NWR||227|
|10. EAGLE CREEK||217|
THE TOP WMAs AND PUBLIC LAND HUNTS
Despite the EHD outbreak, there were still successes on our public lands. When it comes to numbers, Land Between The Lakes (LBL) retook the top spot among WMAs when last year's public land numbers were tallied. Again, the total harvest in 2007 on WMAs was 5,983 deer and well below the 2006 harvest of 7,156.
LBL was the hotspot with a total harvest of 526 deer in 2007, closely followed by legendary Fort Campbell with its harvest of 502 deer. Fort Campbell also produced a stunning 167-class 17-point buck last season, suggesting that if you think that all public land deer in Tennessee are small and not worth hunting, you might want to check into hunts at some of these WMAs and managed lands, since a few of them do have nice top-end potential.
AEDC was third among WMAs with a harvest of 487 deer. The top five WMAs were rounded out by Cherokee's 475 whitetails and Catoosa's 435 deer.
Oak Ridge WMA had a harvest of 375 whitetails for the sixth spot, and Chuck Swan's 369 whitetails harvested was good enough for a seventh place finish in the top 10. The Tennessee NWR had a significant drop from 615 deer taken in 2006 to 319 in 2007 for the eighth spot among WMAs. The top 10 public land hunts were closed out with Cross Creeks NWR's harvest of 227 whitetails followed by Eagle Creek's take of 217 deer.
HOPE AND PREDICTIONIt's still too early to predict exactly what the 2008 deer season will hold. The mast crop should be stable enough, though there is the probability that some red oak mast will be missing. That's because red oaks drop acorns every other year -- this year's acorn crop was in flower during the major 2007 spring frost, and in some areas, the acorn crop may have been frost killed. White oak mast, however, should be in good shape.
Ratajczak said areas like the Unaka Mountains and the Cumberland Plateau should produce some good deer this fall because of the good mast crops there. Either way, he said hunters shouldn't see a boom-or-bust year in 2008. We should see a year where the harvest rebounds somewhat from last year, though it's going to take a couple of seasons to recover from the tough 2007 EHD effects.
Ratajczak said hunters should not expect to exceed the 2006 record harvest of over 182,000 deer this season. Thanks to the EHD factor from last fall, the state's deer herd is definitely not in the same shape it was going into the 2006 record year.
On the other hand, there is very little chance that Tennessee will experience this year a major EHD outbreak like we saw last year. An EHD effect of that magnitude is extremely rare to begin with, and the deer that survive such an outbreak are resistant to the disease. Let's hope most of us won't live long enough to see another one like it.
Ratajczak did say that the agency received numerous requests to move some counties from the liberal Unit L regulations because of last year's EHD problem. He said they didn't want to react and make major harvest regulation changes based on one season. Essentially, the deer herd is now in the same shape it was in when the Unit L counties were put in place. Ratajczak saw no need to pull any counties out, since Unit L regulations existed four years ago. There were even two counties from Unit A that were moved to Unit L status this year. They are Shelby and Obion. Jackson County is the only county statewide that had its antlerless quota removed.
The major changes that have occurred to this year's hunts are significant for opportunity, but Ratajczak doesn't expect them to have major effects on the harvest overall. The first muzzleloader hunt will feature two weekends and nine days this year. That's an addition of two extra blackpowder days. The first five days of the hunt will still be either sex and run Nov. 1-9 in all deer units.
Also in Unit B, for the first time, there will be non-quota antlerless deer hunts in portions of Loudon County (west of I-75) and all of Knox and Hawkins counties. The hunt is Dec. 20-28 and has a limit of one deer. Antlerless gun opportunities were also increased in Anderson, Benton, Blount, Carter, Chester, Claiborne, Fentress, Grainger, Greene, Hamblen, Hancock, Henderson, Jefferson, Johnson, Meigs, Sevier, Sullivan and Tipton counties.
In Unit A and Unit L, to simplify things, hunters will be able to bag their three-buck limit during any of the seasons. The new regulation allows units A and L hunters to harvest all three bucks with the same weapon in their unit of choice. They no longer have to switch units to harvest their three bucks. You can review all of the regulation changes on the TWRA's Web site at www.tnwildlife.orgon the main page under 2008-09 deer seasons.
PART 2 NEXT MONTH
You have to put your hands on next month's issue of Tennessee Sportsman to see our look at where Tennessee's best bucks are harvested. As our deer population rebounds along with mast crops, the buck outlook could be better than expected. We'll take a hard look at just where Tennessee's best buck hunts are found from statewide hunting to WMA bucks; the serious bragging rights will be featured next month.